I spent an afternoon last week at Information Is In The Eye Of The Beholder, an event organised by the Design Councils’ Behavioural Design Lab. Maybe I’m lazy, but the main thing I took from it was a confirmation of something that has been becoming very in my work: that practitioners who apply insights from behavioural sciences in the policy sphere and in public services (and there aren’t many of us) need to challenge our clients to be very clear about the behavioural outcomes they want.
This may seem an obvious point to make, but I don’t think it is. Why? First, there is no established market for public service commissioning of behavioural insights, so commissioners have little experience to draw on. Second, so much policy is designed on the false assumption that people are rational, economic beings that there are likely to be some false assumptions built in to any default view of behavioural goals.
Let me illustrate this.
Felicity Algate from the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team showed a prototype smartphone app that would enable people to compare their energy bill with the putative bill from competing energy companies, and to switch supplier with one click. In terms of providing feedback, applying mere exposure effect, and reducing goal dilution (a real barrier to switching), it’s great. It’s a real “if only all public services could be like this” moment.
But it does raise plenty of policy issues. For one thing, what are the carbon implications (given that the UK has self-imposed carbon budgets to meet by law)? Well, first, let’s be clear that paying less for energy does not increase energy efficiency, which is improved by reducing the energy input required for a given output, not by making it cheaper! Plenty of switching campaigns make this mistake, which in policy or behavioural terms is a significant error (sorry Calderdale, I had to pick on someone). Second, switching suppliers to pay less could increase energy usage. Third, there is an (arguably underfunded) policy drive to help people reduce household energy bills be reducing usase, through the Green Deal, hence a real risk of lack of clarity on how to manage energy bills, with damaging behavioural outcomes. (I should point out that, at the event, others raised risks around the potential behaviour of companies in a market operating in this way; I’m only thinking here about the behaviour policy-makers encourage in citizens). In summary, there’s a case to be made that this is great innovation using behavioural insights, to serve a policy goal that isn’t very smart behaviourally.
In contrast, Felicity also illustrated the use of text messages to encourage people to pay fines (already in the public domain). This is surely a good use of behavioural insights, bringing a public service into line with current knowledge, but also uncontestable in policy terms. Not only is justice being served, but ‘clients’ stand to save the £200 that would otherwise be added to their fine to pay bailiffs.
My point, in summary: taking behavioural sciences seriously means applying them to policy considerations, not merely applying them once the policy thinking is done. And for those of us working in the field, that means not always accepting a commissioner’s brief ‘as is’.